The food labelling debate is a tiresome one, with consumers blaming manufacturers for misleading food labels and manufacturers claiming that it is the consumers' responsibility to know what is in their food. But really whose responsibility is it?

Antoinette Laird, head of external relations, Foodstuffs NZ believes that it is the obligation of three parties – the consumer, the retailer and the manufacturer. “It is the responsibility of the consumer to understand what’s in the food they are buying, but it’s also the responsibility of the manufacturer and supermarket to clearly communicate what is in the food they are making and selling, respectively.”

Consumers say that food producers should be taking more responsibility to clearly label food products. Consumer NZ recently released The Bad Taste Awards which celebrates the most misleading food labelling from the year. Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin said that this year’s list most commonly included foods that marketed their products as a healthier alternative even though they contain spoonful’s of sugar. Among those listed were; Tegal, Bounce, Nestle, Simply Squeezed and Nature Valley.

Among the information manufacturers must show are best-before and use-by-dates. These traditionally are of the most concern to consumers, however, recent years has seen Country of Origin labelling and Nutritional Information become a hot topic.

While MPI gives guidelines, this doesn’t stop a manufacturer from marketing a food product that is full of sugar as a healthy alternative. For example, ‘health’ brand Bounce sells its Cacao Mint Protein Energy Ball as a nutritious and balanced snack with no refined sugar. While the snack doesn’t contain refined sugar, it does contain rice syrup and grape juice resulting in the small bite-sized ball being 22.8 percent sugar.

Foodstuffs support two major food labelling programmes. These are United Fresh with the 5+ A Day system and the Health Star Rating. “More than 1,157 of Foodstuffs private label products, and 53 percent of the range carries a 3.5-star rating or higher. We also support the 5+ A Day labelling programme, which promotes the daily consumption of 5 plus servings of fruit and vegetables.”

Consumers are able to find this information on the back of the packaging, but do they actually understand it, and do they even check?

In 2014 the Chartered Institute of Marketing conducted a study which revealed that 79 percent of consumers thought that food and drink brands could do more to explain what is in their products and that 59 percent thought that retailers should do the same. And while 81 percent of food manufacturers claim to already display more than the minimum amount of information required on their packaging, 83 of consumer claimed to have seen a brand using images or language to suggest a product is healthier than it actually is.

Is traffic light labelling the answer? The traffic light scheme was launched by the British Government in 2013. The system is an at-a-glance infographic of red, orange and green to give consumers a quick biopsy of the fat, sugar and salt contents of food products. It was produced as a way to aid customers in making healthier eating choices, without bombarding them with information. Kellogg’s and PepsiCo are the latest brands to adopt the mandatory labelling system that has proven to be successful overseas.

New Zealand also recently passed the Country of Origin bill which will require fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and seafood products display their country of origin. Fines of up to $30,000 could be issued for those who fail to comply.

Education for consumers is key both in school, online and instore. “We have a duty to educate shoppers within our communities as to how they can live a healthy life,” said Laird. “Food for Thought is a national initiative that solely focuses on nutrition education in schools across the country. The programme is delivered by qualified nutritionists and Heart Foundation educators who visit schools and teach children about the nutritional content of their food.”

Since the programme began in 2007, Food for Thought has worked with 1,753 schools in 5,922 classrooms, impacting 154,999 students and 9,073 parents.

Food labelling is a responsibility of everyone, but consumers need to look at the ingredients list and nutritional information provided before just believing the weasel words and nice packaging.